A Story by Chuck Fager
Copyright (c) All rights reserved
PART ONE: Four Days Into Lockdown
It was hot. The summer of 1970 was burning scorched-looking brown spots in the green Pennsylvania hills, and made the wide cornfields around us crackle, as if their just-forming ears were going to swell up and start popping any minute now.
Inside the wall, humidity condensed and trickled down the walls of our cells, and the smells of mildew and old sweat were everywhere. It occurred to me that it must be something like this in the rice paddies of Vietnam. That was an irony for you: I had refused to join the army and go the rice paddies, so rice paddy weather had come to me.
Naturally, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons didn’t believe in air conditioning, except of course in the guards’ lounge and the warden’s office. Worse yet, the bureaucrats had been spooked by the news from Attica, three hours to the northwest of us in New York. A week earlier the men there had rebelled and taken hostages, until the state troopers blasted them out. Dozens had been
killed and wounded as law and order, as the governor liked to say, were restored.
But Attica was in a different state, and a different system –hell, a different planet almost. This was a medium security joint, and after a year here I thought I had a good ear for the tension level in our block at least, and it felt like we had about as much fight in us as a damp potato chip. The heat wrung it out of us, simmering us in the depression and despair that are more usual among caged men.
The worst of it for me was that the lockdown order had come the day before my next visit to the library. Reading was the one pleasure I could legally retain inside, and now I was caught without it. There were only two books in my cell, a Horatio Hornblower novel and the Bible the visiting committee from the Meeting brought me.
I’d read both already. The Bible hadn’t been as bad as I thought it would be; but I wasn’t ready to start on it again. The Hornblower had mostly been a bore; did I really care what happened to some British naval commander in the Napoleonic wars? Besides, there was no sex in it to speak of.
The only parts which really held me were the descriptions of the sea. They made the ocean sound cool and wet, with a breeze, and sometimes tantalizingly close.
I dreamed about the sea twice while reading Hornblower. After the second dream, I decided that as soon as I made parole, I was heading for the beach, and nobody better try to stop me.
A good many hours were passed wondering which beach was closest to here –Cape May, New Jersey? Rehoboth Beach in Delaware? Or what about Cape Cod? It was farther away, but the beaches were nicer, or so I’d been told. Maybe Nantucket; yes –Nantucket, being an island, would be surrounded on all sides by that cool dark water and its breezes.
That’s one of the ways you pass time inside, thinking pointless thoughts about pointless things. It’s a waste of your time, a waste of your life; but don’t let me get started on that.
If the Hornblower book had been a mistake, there was another war novel I was anxious to read, The Captain, by Jan de Hartog. It was about the sea too, and rescue boats in World War Two. Quaker pacifist that I was, that was a war I could relate to. The Nazis were evil, and I knew which side was supposed to win, even if I wouldn’t have joined in the fighting. Or maybe I would have; lots of Quakers did. A copy of The Captain sat in the prison library; I’d seen it there last time, looked through it, and put it next on my mental “gotta read this” list. But when would I get my hands on it?
We were four days into the lockdown when the warden decided, in a fit of charity I suppose, to let us have our mail. A guard brought it around, pushing a cart with a squeaky wheel down the outside hallway. It got quiet when the cart started its rounds. I lay on my bed, like everyone else, listening to its progress, wondering if it was going to stop by my cell.
It did. “Harrison.” The guard’s hand pushed between the bars. Two envelopes.
One was from the visiting committee. They had planned to see me the previous weekend, the clerk wrote, but the lockdown kept them out. They were sorry, they hoped I was minding the light and keeping up my spirits, they wanted me to know they were behind me a hundred percent in my conscientious resistance to the draft, they quoted George Fox, etc., etc.
It wasn’t much to lean on against the pressures of that place; but it was better than nothing, which was what most of the rest of the prisoners had.
The other letter was from Art. I opened it with interest. My younger brother didn’t write often; what did he have to say, I wondered. Did I forget his birthday or something?
It was dated almost a month earlier; it was just like Art to write a letter and forget to send it; mother probably found it and prodded him, gave him a stamp.
“Dear Hal,” he wrote, “I hope you’re doing okay there. We’re all fine here.”
After this rather stiff opening, he went on for two more labored paragraphs about stuff happening back home: Eddie Meyers had gotten engaged, Morty Haverman bought a big new Corvette, and some other people we knew were about to graduate from college. That kind of stuff.
Halfway through this catalog, I could sense that something else was really on his mind. Art wasn’t given to this kind of social chitchat; I got it from my mother. Was there something he was having trouble getting around to saying?
My hunch was right. “All that’s not the really major news,” he wrote finally. “The biggest item is from me, and I hope you’re sitting down.”
Of course I was sitting; there wasn’t enough room to do much more.
“You know how much I hate school,” he began, “but I did finish the year at community college. Just barely. I passed the math okay, but history, geography and Zoology–jeez, I could hardly ever stay awake. Two years of that is about as much as I can put up with. And Ed down at the shop said they’ll take me on fulltime, you know, as soon as I’m free.”
I turned the handwritten sheet over. There was no news here so far. Art looked studious, even nerdy, thick glasses and all; but he had never been much for schooling. Instead, he had tinkered with motorcycles since he was a kid. Ed’s shop was the Honda dealership back home, and Art had worked there on and off since high school.
“The only problem,” Art went on, “is that since I’m not in school anymore, I’m real live draft bait now. So I had to get that figured out.”
Suddenly there was an empty, ominous feeling in my stomach. I guessed what was coming.
“The Air Force recruiter,” he wrote, “told me about this program they’ve got where you learn mechanics, and it’s mostly on the job too, not that much boring classroom stuff.”
No, I thought. He didn’t do this.
Yes, he did. “So,” read the next sentence, “I signed up.”
That was it, the point of the letter.
PART TWO: Tapping On the Bars
“Hal,” he wrote, “I hope you’re not mad about this.”
I threw the letter down on my cot and leaped up. Two steps forward and I was at the bars, gripping them with both hands, not seeing anything beyond them.
Mad wasn’t quite the right word for what I was feeling. Betrayed was closer. Sold out.
I had spent 397 days behind bars acting out beliefs we had both been taught all our lives: “Keep clear of war and preparation for war,” that’s what it said in Faith and Practice, and Hal knew it as well as I did.
But then, when push comes to shove with the war machine, my own brother signs right up.
He didn’t file for CO. He didn’t even try to stay in school, take the student deferment route. Go to Canada? He wouldn’t know where to find it on the map.
Was I mad? Damn right. But also ashamed and humiliated. They gave the kid a crescent wrench and the promise of a few lessons, and walked away with his soul. So what if, in the process, it made his older brother in the slammer look like a fool. Gee whiz, bet he never thought of that.
I stared out at nothing for a long time, my mind seething. Didn’t he know that recruiters routinely lied about what was really going to happen once guys signed up? Hal could still end up in Vietnam; did he think there weren’t any mechanics working on the helicopters that were shooting up the whole damn country?
Finally I turned back to the bed, and picked up the letter again.
The rest of it was anti-climactic; our parents were pretty much okay with his decision, he said. He was scheduled for a physical and some placement tests in a couple weeks, and then by the end of August, he’d be shipped out for basic training. He repeated that he hoped I wasn’t mad about it.
There was a notebook and a pencil in the little amount of stuff allowed me, and a few envelopes. I couldn’t stop Hal from this foolishness, but I didn’t have to be quiet about. I flipped open the notebook and began writing in a kind of fury.
“You stupid fool,” I wrote. “Doesn’t everything you’ve been taught mean anything to you? What kind of a coward have you turned into?” And that was the friendly part.
I scribbled several pages like this, my rage building as the blue lines filled up. Finally I saw I was down to the next-to-last sheet in the notebook, so I closed by urging Art to go see a lawyer I knew, who could help him get out of his enlistment. Why I thought he’d take that advice from me after all the abuse in the rest of the letter I don’t know; but that’s a big brother for you. Carefully ripping the pages from their spiral binding, I folded them into one of the envelopes, leaving it unsealed, as prison censorship rules dictated. As soon as they let us out for exercise, I’d mail it.
It was getting dark now. They brought us supper in our cells, some greasy hamburger- macaroni concoction with instant mashed potatoes and tired looking green beans. It came on flimsy plastic trays too lightweight to be broken up and sharpened into weapons, shoved through a narrow slot in the bars. I ate without interest.
After the trays were collected, the block settled back into a near silence. Soon a guard somewhere below settled into his chair, and turned on a portable radio. It wasn’t on very loud, but the sound drifted up through the gloom. He was a country music fan, not my favorite kind of music, but a welcome relief from the enforced quiet of the lockdown. There’s a melancholy overtone to much country, especially the steel guitar riffs, that fits well inside a jail. And there used to be a lot of prison songs too, before country went slick and uptown.
The last song I remember was by Merle Haggard: “If We Make It Through December,” about a guy who’s unemployed talking to his little daughter about how maybe times will get better after Christmas. After next Chrismas I’d be close to my next chance for parole; and by the Christmas after that, I’d be out regardless. A long time, but not quite forever. Then I’d make my run to the ocean; as I drifted into sleep, I realized that it might be the dead of winter when I got there? Did I care? No.
A tapping on the bars of my cell woke me up. It was almost pitch dark, but as my eyes adjusted, I could see someone outlined by the dim glow of the security light below us.
I sat up instantly, fear sliding with the sweat down the back of my neck. Nighttime visitors to your cell were almost always trouble. That’s when guys were beaten or raped. The guards had to be in on it, for bribes or grudges or something, to let people out of their cells, and unlatch the bars to yours.
I thought fast. I wasn’t on anybody’s hit list, as far as I knew. I kept quiet, stayed out of trouble, and steered clear of the guys with the reputation for prison sex. But you don’t always know about these things. People can be watching, making you a target and biding their time, without you realizing it until the last fatal moment.
“What do you want?” I whispered at the figure, and started to get up.
PART THREE: Do You Understand?
But then he was inside my cell, his pale hands barely visible spread out before him, showing me they were empty, no weapons. He was also whispering something back at me, it sounded like, “Freunde, freunde.”
I recognized a German accent. “Who are you?” I asked, still tense. I didn’t recall hearing any German accents among the men here. But people came and went all the time.
“Ich bin Hans,” he answered, still in a low tone, and then corrected himself. “I am Hans Berger. My English is not very well. But I am here to speak with you.”
“Yeah?” I was skeptical. “About what?”
“Deine bruder,” he muttered, “Your brother.”
“What do you know about my brother?” I demanded.
“Ich weisse genug,” he muttered. “I know enough. The letter. Your letter.”
“Those letters?” I hissed. “How do you know about them?”
He shrugged. I could just make out his face now. Blond hair that hung down over one eyebrow. A gray, lined face. Pale eyes. “In German some call would me a wandergeist,” he said. You might call it a being who has no resting place.” He waved a hand dismissively. “But that is nicht important. I have come to ask your help.”
“Help?” I asked. “What can I do for anybody, locked up in here?”
“Ach,” he said. “You can listen. There are not many who can do that. Not for me.” He stepped back. “But if you refuse, then I will go.”
He took another step back, up to the bars.
“Wait,” I said. What he was doing in my cell was still unexplained. But he didn’t seem dangerous, and I hadn’t talked face to face with anyone for four days. “All right,” I said. “I’ll listen to whatever it is you’ve got on your mind.”
“Eine schwermut erzahlung,” he murmured, “a story. My story.”
I leaned back. The cell wall felt damp, but cooler than it had been. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’m listening.” And he began to talk.
“I am born in Berlin, in 1922. My father, Heinrich Berger, works in a bank, and my family is Quakers. There are not many of us, but we believe. I am raised to know war is wrong. When Hitler comes, it is hard for us. Gestapo listen to our meetings. Many Friends keep very quiet; but some of them go to prison. Others leave Germany.
“I now have two little sisters, and my father is asked, does he want to leave, and he says it is his duty to stay. Quakers suffered before, he says, and we may suffer again; it is in God’s hands. I am young, but I understand, and I am proud of him. I know time will come for me to do my duty also.
“When the war starts, the army is drafting the young men. I am a student, in science. But I also study the Bible, and George Fox. In the Bible, Jesus says we must not resist evil, but must speak the truth and take up the cross. In Fox’s Journal, I read the peace testimony of 1660: we do not fight for the kingdom with carnal weapons. I believe it. I believe it all. I am ready to say no to the Nazis and their army. Even if they kill me, I will say no. It is in God’s hands.”
He paused. “Verstehen sie?” he asked. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”
He nodded. “Gut. In 1941, your country joins the war against Germany. The Nazi army wants more and more young men. They send me a letter. I throw it away. They send me another one. It is full of stern talk about saving the fatherland and obeying the will of the Fuhrer. This time I write back, and tell them I am a Quaker and a follower of Jesus, and I will obey him and not be part of their war, and I am not afraid of them. There is much prahlen, er, boasting, in the letter.
“Then some weeks later, I am coming home from the hochschule, and a black sedan stops me in the street. Two SS officers get out, and tell me to come with them. They take me to an office, and leave me sitting alone in an empty room that has only a chair in it for an hour.
PART FOUR: Wherever It Leads
“I know the SS are dangerous men, who do evil things. But I am not afraid. I sit and wait quietly. I pray. I even fall asleep. Finally one of the men is shaking me, and shouts that I am to follow him to see Ubercommandant Schmidt.
“We go into a large office. Ubercommandant Schmidt is sitting behind a large dark mahogany desk, with the SS insignia on his uniform lapels. On the desk there is only a telephone, a lamp, and a single folder. The officer who brought me in clicks his heels, gives the Nazi salute, and leaves.
“Schmidt does not look up at me. He puts on a pair of spectacles, opens the folder and looks at a sheet of paper. Herr Berger,’ he says, you wrote this?’
“I can see it is my letter. I answer, ‘Ja, mein Herr.’ Yes, sir.
“‘So you do not believe in war,’ he says.
“‘Nein, mein Herr’ I say. No, sir.
“‘And you are willing to die for your belief,’ he asks calmly, ‘just as a soldier is willing to die in battle?’”
“‘I want to obey God,’ I answer.
“Now Schmidt begins to smile. ‘But.’ he said, ‘God many times commanded his people, the Israelites, to slay their enemies, nicht wahr?’ Isn’t it so?’”
“This question surprises me, but it has come up before, when I studied the Bible. ‘Mein Herr,’ I say, ‘that happened under the old covenant. When Jesus came, he put an end to that. And I want to be a Friend of Jesus, and to follow him.’
“Schmidt nods, as if we were in a classroom and I had given the right answer to a professor’s question. Still he is smiling. The smile is beginning to make me nervous. It feels like he is playing a game with me. He takes another sheet from the folder, and asks another question.
“‘Did you also read in your Bible, Herr Berger, the Letter of Paul to the Romans, which says that the magistrate is ordained of God as a terror to evildoers, and that he does not bear the sword in vain?’
“‘Yes, mein herr,’ I answer. ‘I have read it.’
“‘I thought so.’ He stood up. He was about an inch taller than me. ‘Well, Herr Berger, where the Reichsarmy service law is concerned, I am the magistrate.’”
He handed me the sheet of paper. It is a Reichsarmy enlistment form. There is a line at the bottom where I am to sign. I hand it back to him.
“‘Very well,’ he says. ‘Your defiance is to be dealt with by me. And you know, I presume, that the penalty for such a refusal as yours is death by firing squad.’
“I realized that my knees were trembling slightly. So now perhaps it was my moment to face this penalty. Suddenly I wanted to see my parents and my sisters again, at least to say goodbye. But they also knew what was involved when I wrote the letter.
“‘Ja, Herr ubercommandant,’ I say. Yes, I know.
Now the smile left his face. ‘Are you ready to reconsider your decision?’ He asked it calmly, but there was no mistaking the seriousness in his voice.
“‘Nein, mein Herr,’ I say, and my voice is trembling too now. ‘No. I must follow my conscience, wherever it leads.’
It is very strange; I am trembling, but I am not afraid.
“He sits down again. ‘Very well, Herr Berger. But it is my duty to inform you that we have no intention of shooting you.’ He lifted another sheet from the folder. ‘I have examined your record at the hochschule. It is very superior in all the fields of science you have studied. The Reich cannot afford to lose your abilities.’
“He dropped the sheet, and tapped it with his finger. ‘No, Berger, the fatherland is at war. We need the mind and the strength of every able man for her defense. And as the officer charged with obtaining your service, I have been given wide discretion by the Fuhrer to command it.’
“Now he reached into a drawer of the desk and pulled out a leatherbound notebook. He turned several pages, then spread it on the desktop. He drew a fountain pen from a pocket and began to write on the page.
“‘When you speak of the willingness of the soldier to die in battle,’ he said, ‘didn’t you also consider that this is only half of the soldier’s task?’ He glanced up at me. ‘The other part of a soldier’s duty is not to die, but to kill.’
“I watched the pen moving. ‘No, Herr Berger,’ he repeated, still looking down at the notebook, we have no intention of shooting you.’
“Then he put the pen carefully to one side and stared up at me.
“‘Instead,’ he said slowly, ‘we will shoot your family. I shall begin with your sisters.’ He picked up the pen. ‘Their names are, I believe, Helga and Hilda, ja?’
“I did not believe what I was hearing. ‘And then,’ Schmidt said, still writing, ‘next I will shoot your parents. Who shall it be first, Berger — your Mother? You get to choose– tell me.’
Hans got up as he told me this, and turned away, toward the bars. He turned back a moment later, rubbing his eyes with pale knuckles. “That,” he said, “was when I fainted.
CONCLUSION: Bad Eyes & Exercise
The cell was silent for a long moment. Both of us seemed to be letting Schmidt’s words sink in. Finally, I couldn’t keep quiet. “What,” I asked, “did you do?”
Hans shrugged. “What was there to do? I woke up a few minutes later, back in the white room with the chair. One of the guards was there. When he saw me stirring he handed me the enlistment form and said, ‘Ubercommandant Schmidt requests your answer in one hour,’ and walked out.”
Hans stopped and turned his face away. After a moment I asked, again,
“What did you do?”
He shrugged, then turned back toward me. “What do you think? I was ready to die for my beliefs, not to kill for them. And especially not to kill those closest to me. I sat for awhile, in a kind of paralysis. When I heard the guard opening the door, I signed the form.”
He took a slow deep breath. “They let me go home long enough to say goodbye. My father did not understand at first. I said only that it was what I had to do, for all of us, and I hoped he could forgive me. His last words to me were to quote Jesus, ‘Go in peace.’
“I never saw them again. The Reichsarmy trained me as a doctor, and I was sent to the eastern front. In the end, I did not kill anyone in battle. But I treated many soldiers who did.”
He sighed and rubbed his hands together, as if he was cold. ‘In the winter of 1944, I was with troops who were withdrawing from Russia. It was a terrible time: ice and mud, disease and destruction all around. One night there Russian bombers attacked. I felt the ground shake, heard the explosions approaching, and then there a great flash of light.”
Now he raised his hands, gesturing around the cell. “Since then,” he said, “ I wake up, and I am in places like this. Dark, sometimes cold, sometimes hot. I find others, like you. I tell them this story. Then, somehow, I can sleep again.”
I didn’t know what to say. “is there something you want from me?” I wondered. “I’ve got a little money.” I felt sheepish suggesting it.
He shook his head. “You are kind,” he said. “But nothing of the little you have can help me. Except,” he paused. “Except for perhaps one thing.”
Suddenly I thought I knew. “If I say to you, ‘Go in peace’?”
Now he smiled, and nodded. “Yes. That is what you can do. Danke, mein Freunde. Thank you, Friend.” He reached out and shook my hand.
As soon as he touched me, I began to feel very tired. How long had I sat there, I wondered vaguely, listening to this harrowing story? It must be almost morning.
I only half-heard him stand and walk away.
Then it was light, and a jangling bell warned that it was time for what they called breakfast. Soon the plastic tray was shoved in, and behind it came a rumor, whispered down the block: “Word is the lockdown will be lifted today. With luck, we’ll see the sun again today.” I could feel the stirring of hope; even an hour in the blazing midday light would be welcome after this forced stretch of group solitary confinement.
For once, the rumor mill proved right. The bells went off again an hour before they were supposed to for lunch, and the announcement came over the PA system: “Lunch will be distributed in the cafeteria by cell blocks, followed by exercise time in the inside yard. Mail call will be at the conclusion of lunch.”
I stuck my arm through the bars and bent it around to slap high fives with the men on each side. After days of silence, we talked some, about this and that. Finally, the bells jangled again, and for the first time in a week, the doors opened.
I got ready to step outside, waiting to be counted before heading down to the mess hall. Then I remembered something. I stepped back in, and picked up the envelope addressed to my brother. It could be dropped in the guards’ box for screening as I went into lunch. They’d mail it; prison was a meat grinder for family relationships, and tirades were tediously common in the mail that went in and out of here.
But then the image of Hans came back to me. His hollow eyes, the weight he seemed to be carrying. Was it a dream, or what?
I pulled out the sheets and tapped them against my other palm. After what I had said to Hans, what did I really want to say to Art?
I looked at the first page, and found myself shaking my head. Slowly but deliberately, I tore the letter into very small pieces. I flushed them down my commode, and put the envelope carefully back in the small stack; no sense wasting the stamp.
I don’t think the food that day was cooked any better than usual. But it sure tasted better in the mess hall than it had in our cells. The noise level was high, as men began catching up with conversations and rumors that had been held in suspension for nearly a week. The guard who did mail call tried to shout, but then had to turn to the PA system to read the names on the letters.
Harrison was one of them, and I went eagerly up to him after turning in my tray. He handed me a single postcard.
It was from Art, dated only three days ago.
“Hey Hal,” it read, “Guess what? I flunked my physical, man. Bad eyes! The recruiter was really pissed, but so it goes. There’ll be no Air Force for this guy! See you at the shop!” There was a glossy photo of a Honda cycle on the back.
I grinned, and then laughed, as much at myself as at Art. “No sweat, bro,” I thought, and headed for the exercise yard.
Another Midsummer Night’s Dream: The story told by the German visitor to the narrator’s cell comes from the historian Hans Schmitt, author of the book, Quakers and Nazis, an account of the experience and sufferings of Friends in Germany during the Third Reich. I heard Schmitt tell this story in a talk to the Friends Historical Association in Philadelphia.
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.